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New York’s Island of the Dead Included in List of 2017 Preservation Priorities

The Historic Districts Council included New York City’s mass grave, Hart Island, among its Six to Celebrate neighborhood preservation priorities.

View to Hart Island from City Island in New York City (2016) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The annual Six to Celebrate initiative from the Historic Districts Council (HDC) highlights neighborhoods in New York City in need of preservation attention, with the “class of 2017” announced last week. Alongside communities like Prospect-Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn, West Harlem in Manhattan, and Mott Haven in the Bronx, all threatened by rapid development and a lack of landmarking, is an unexpected addition: Hart Island, the city’s potter’s field. Difficult to access, managed by the Department of Correction, the mass grave of over a million burials remains obscure.

Hart Island from the air (2016) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Although it’s a short ride away from the Bronx, it’s a complete mystery to most New Yorkers, who don’t know that the largest municipal cemetery in the country is located in our harbor,” Simeon Bankoff, HDC executive director, told Hyperallergic. Six to Celebrate has included unconventional neighborhood designations like historic public librariesferry bridges in the Bronx, and Staten Island cemeteries, some of which are inaccessible, yet Hart Island is distinct in its restricted nature.

Its narrow shores are dotted with crumbling structures, relics from its enduring status as an island of the marginalized and overlooked, whether housing a Civil War prisoner-of-war camp, 19th-century boys’ workhouse, women’s insane asylum, Nike missile silo in the Cold War, or cemetery, a role that began in the 1860s. (You can see extensive photographs of the surviving architecture at the Kingston Lounge.)

View of the Convalescent Hospital on Hart Island (1877) (via Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection/Wikimedia)
Buildings on Hart Island (2015) (photo by Adam Moss/Flickr)

The experience of visiting today is surreal and bleak. I joined one of the public visits last year, taking a small ferry from City Island. Once stepping onto the island, we were allowed to stand in and around a simple gazebo, one granite tombstone adjoining for memorials. While the natural beauty of the site with the rolling grass surrounding us was serene, it was hard to ignore the aggressive sound of construction machines clearing space for more trench tombs. The dust and dirt they swirled up looked like smoke hovering over a nearby abandoned church, the morning light streaming through its broken rose window.

Six to Celebrate bills itself as “New York’s only citywide list of preservation priorities.” It’s aimed at facilitating resources for neighborhood activists and groups, comprising documentation, publicity, outreach, and delving into the often complex zoning and landmarking laws. Hart Island’s greatest public advocate has been the Hart Island Project, founded by the artist Melinda Hunt in the 1990s. Their recent actions have concentrated on visibility (like the online Traveling Cloud Museum), access, and rethinking how this could be a more accessible place, including as a green burial park.

“The facility is incredibly important to the history of healthcare and social responsibility in America, and we look forward to working with the Hart Island Project on promoting public awareness about and access to this fascinating historic site,” Bankoff stated.

Hart Island, with the ferry arriving at right (2016) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

View all of the 2017 Six to Celebrate at the Historic Districts Council. 

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